Red Cliffs Desert Reserve

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The sprawling 60,000-acre Red Cliffs Desert Reserve (which includes the designated Red Cliffs National Conservation Area) contains a one-of-a-kind convergence of multiple different desert ecosystems, jaw-dropping scenery, and protected species seldom seen elsewhere. Anyone wishing to get a taste of the astonishing juxtaposition of a stark rock-scape with delicate, determined life should pay this attraction an extended visit.

About the Reserve

Located just north of St. George, Utah, this area is technically a transition zone between the Mojave Desert, the Great Basin and the Colorado Plateau. This promises a mixture of plants and animals from each of these regions, as well as a few you won’t see anywhere else in the world. In particular, the reserve was created to protect the desert tortoise, a threatened species, as well as other reptiles, birds, and mammals who need a fighting chance to make it in this harsh environment.

Because the landscape and ecological makeup within the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve vary, it’s been broken out into two primary zones, the Upland and Lowland.

Upland Area

The Upland area is more biologically durable, and cross-country and off-trail travel are permitted. Hikers and equestrians can ramble through the red rocks or use designated trails, and primitive and established camping is permitted here.

Lowland Area

The Lowland zone is a little more fragile, so it’s set aside to protect sensitive species. You’ll need to carefully hike only on established trails and stay in developed campgrounds. A living cryptobiotic crust covers the soil here, holding it together with hardy little microbes. To keep it intact, the only creatures permitted to trek over it are the non-human variety.  

Snow Canyon State Park

The Red Cliffs Desert Reserve does include the famed Snow Canyon State Park, a gem within this geographic treasure-trove. In Snow Canyon, you’ll find miles of hiking and biking trails, along with some excellent rock climbing routes. This rambling canyon is set against a mix of towering red sandstone cliffs and black lava rock caps spilling down the hillsides. There’s even a tall, soft sand dune within the park that kids will play on for hours upon hours.

Know Before You Go

If you have kids in tow, you should check out the City Creek area within the Red Cliffs reserve. If you are looking for a bigger challenge, be sure to spend a little time in the Red Reef, Red Mountain, or Millcreek areas. It’s in these spots where you will find true desert wilderness conditions — which means you’ll need to bring ample water, a good topographic map, layers, and food.

If you chance to meet a desert tortoise (or if you’re even luckier and find any silver-dollar-sized baby tortoises) along the way, take a moment to thank it for this conservation area’s existence. There are very strict rules against meddling with a tortoise’s day — touching it or bothering it in any way is illegal. Their lives are constant battles for survival in this unforgiving corner of the world, so the only time it’s acceptable to touch a tortoise is if it’s in danger (for example, if it’s on a road where it could be run over). 

This desert is magical and serene in any season, shifting from winter stillness to spring wildflowers, then summer’s blazing heat and finally fall’s perfection. You can stop by the Red Cliffs Visitor Center (10 North 100 East in downtown Saint George) for more information about the area’s nature, hikes, rides, and trails, or download a trail map of the area (PDF). 

The Red Cliffs area is safeguarded for generations to come, which is a great thing because you’ll want to come back time and time again to continue exploring its endless nooks, crannies and expanses.

Hiking Trails

The Red Cliffs Desert Reserve offers a variety of hikes ranging from very easy to very strenuous. The eastern reaches include the highly recommended Red Cliffs Nature Trail and the Babylon area. The Millcreek and Grapevine sections of the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve are unfussy, easy on the eyes, and, for the most part, quite mellow for hiking. The Western and Red Mountain portions of Red Cliffs Desert Reserve are as stunning as desert terrain can be — and they’re situated near charming Kayenta, where a tourist-friendly artists’ village lies.

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